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Tackling violence, harassment and bullying - Annual Report 2009-2010: Australian Human Rights Commission

The year in review

Tackling violence, harassment and bullying

Reducing violence against women

Violence against women is a devastating problem that knows no geographic, demographic, financial or racial boundaries. It affects the lives of more than 300 000 women and children in Australia each year.

During 2010-11, the Commission continued to advocate for a comprehensive and integrated national strategy to counter violence against women and children, including adequate funding for service providers and advocacy organisations.

The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Their Children 2010-2022, announced on 15 February 2011, is a major step towards this goal.Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick described the new National Plan as a landmark moment and welcomed its focus on addressing both domestic violence and sexual assault.

As part of the strategy, a National Centre of Excellence will be established to develop a national research agenda and undertake national data collection and reporting. Commissioner Broderick noted that independent and rigorous monitoring and evaluation is essential to ensure that the National Plan delivers its goals.

In April 2011, the Commission made a submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Inquiry into Family Violence and Commonwealth Laws: Employment and Superannuation.

We also drew community attention to the issue of violence against women during activities to mark International Women’s Day (8 March 2011) and as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence international campaign, which started on 25 November 2010.

Stronger protection against sexual harassment

In 2010-11, allegations of sexual harassment accounted for 30% of complaints received under the Sex Discrimination Act, up markedly from 21% in the previous year. It remains a serious problem in Australian workplaces and the proliferation of new technologies is also creating new mediums where sexual harassment can occur.

During the year, the Commission advocated for changes to the Sex Discrimination Act that would strengthen protection against sexual harassment in workplaces and schools and prohibit sexual harassment using new technologies.

In May 2011, these amendments were passed by Parliament. We welcomed the improved protection that these changes will provide, especially for young people.

We have also started work with a range of stakeholders on a major project that aims to challenge workplace attitudes to sexual harassment and encourages people to take action when they witness incidents of sexual harassment.

Australian Defence Force Review

In April 2011, the Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith, requested the Commission undertake a Review into the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

In June 2011, a four-member panel of experts, led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, began receiving submissions on the treatment of women in ADFA and further initiatives required to drive cultural change.

The second phase of the Review will examine the effectiveness of cultural change strategies and initiatives to improve leadership pathways for women in the ADF.

The terms of reference for the Review are available on the Commission’s website. It is anticipated that both phases of the Review will be completed by the end of 2011.

Complaint of sexual harassment in employment1

The complainant was employed with the respondent company in a hospitality role. She alleged that during the course of her employment she was sexually harassed by her male manager, which included him placing his arm around her shoulder, slapping her bottom and rubbing himself against her.

On being advised of the complaint, the company agreed to participate in a conciliation conference. The complainant did not wish to continue the employment relationship and the complaint was resolved with the company agreeing to pay the complainant $73,000 as compensation.

1 Complaints are resolved in conciliation on a without-admission-of-liability basis

Safeguarding the rights of international students

As a proportion of its total tertiary enrolments, Australia has the largest number of international students. In 2010, there were 470 000 international students in Australia.

However, as academic research and media reports have highlighted, some international students are vulnerable to violence, harassment and bullying that can seriously compromise their safety and their overall study experience.

These include, among others, racially motivated violence and harassment, sexual violence, workplace exploitation and sexual harassment.

During the year, the Commission hosted a series of policy workshops to examine these and other issues in detail.

At year close, Race Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, was working with international students and their representative bodies, as well as partners in the international education sector, to develop a set of Minimum Standards for International Study Safety.

The Minimum Standards, which will be tested and then released later in 2011, aim to positively inform future government policy.

Addressing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people

In October 2010, the Australian Human Rights Commission hosted a series of public consultations to listen to the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people.

During these meetings, participants shared personal stories of discrimination, vilification and harassment. They also told us about the negative effects of discrimination on their health, well-being and self-esteem.

These stories reinforced a number of the findings in previous reports by the Commission: Same-Sex: Same Entitlements (2007) and Sex Files: The legal recognition of sex in documents and government records (2009).

Equality and freedom from discrimination are fundamental human rights that belong to all people, irrespective of their sexual orientation and sex and/or gender identity.

The Commission’s consultations provided compelling evidence of the need for stronger federal protection against discrimination, harassment and bullying. In addition, improved legal safeguards can help bring about positive changes in community attitudes.

Consultation participants also suggested that marriage equality would be an important step towards full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people in Australia. Other suggestions focused on public education, health services and obtaining legal recognition of a person’s sex on official documents.

Our consultations reinforced the point that, just as heterosexual people are not a homogenous group, neither are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people. It is important that their different experiences are acknowledged when developing strategies to address discrimination and harassment.

In 2010, Australia’s major political parties affirmed their support to include protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in federal law.

The Commission’s consultation report aims to assist the Australian Government as it considers how these protections might be included.

On 4 May 2011, Addressing sexual orientation and sex and/or gender identity discrimination was released by Commission President, Catherine Branson.

Complaint of race discrimination and racial hatred in employment

The complainant, who is of Middle Eastern descent, was employed on a contract basis with the respondent manufacturing company. He alleged that his manager made various racially offensive comments in front of his co-workers, including calling him “f**king Arab”, “terrorist” and “bomb chucker”. He also claimed his manager asked him if he was planning to blow up their place of work and whether he sold and used drugs. The complainant said he was eventually not given any further work with the company.

In its response to the complaint, the company said that colourful language was a regular part of workplace banter. The complainant’s manager acknowledged that he made some of the alleged comments but denied using the word “Arab”. The company claimed the complainant and a number of other contract workers were not offered further work because of a downturn in business.

The complaint was resolved with an agreement that the company would provide the complainant with a reference, a statement of service and $25,000 as compensation. The company also agreed to provide anti-discrimination training to all employees and arrange additional training for the complainant’s former manager.

Taking a stand against bullying

In May 2010, the Commission joined with online youth mental health service,, to launch a national campaign calling on young Australians to develop an anti-bullying pledge.

The competition, open to people aged between 14 and 25, focused on the important role that bystanders can play in standing up to bullying.

Ninety three entries were submitted, with five winning entries selected through over 3,000 online votes.

We recognise that the negative effects of bullying on young people can last a lifetime. It can harm their physical and mental health and undermine their education.

With social networking websites now a central part of the lives of many Australians, a growing number of young people are grappling with problems of cyber bullying.

In June 2011, the Commission began work on an innovative campaign to counter this emerging trend.

Partnering with the Child Health Promotion Research Centre at Edith Cowan University, and communications specialists, Primary Communication, our goal is to help young people take safe, effective and appropriate action when they witness cyber bullying.

Young people will also directly contribute to the content, design and delivery of the project.

Our project complements a number of the key findings in the report of the Joint-Select Committee on Cyber Safety, High Wire Act: Cyber Safety and the Young.

Youth champion shares anti-bullying message

During her visit to Australia in February 2011, UN Youth Champion and Disney actress, Monique Coleman, was a star attraction with students at Granville South High School in Sydney, sharing a positive message of youth empowerment. She also recorded a series of messages for the Commission’s anti-bullying initiatives.